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Bring women to the party

May 25, 2011

Five of the seven parties in the Norwegian parliament today are led by women. Two of the three parties in the coalition government are led by women.

Each party is an organization in itself, and research shows that organizations led by women perform better. All of this would seem promising for the state of politics and political organizations in Norway. Except that it seems to be a fluke.

The leading intellectual newspaper in Norway, Morgenbladet, recently published an analysis of the political parties, in which Aslak Bonde noted that when these women go, there are almost none waiting in the wings. After chewing on the facts a bit, Bonde offers the following speculation: “It’s only men who are so shallow that they are willing to sacrifice themselves and their families at the alter of political glory.”

For those of us who think about gender balance in academia, this is eerily familiar to our own discussions about getting more women to the top. Fortunately, we know many measures that work; these are measures that political parties could consider for their own organizations — if they want to.

The numbers from higher education and research in Norway are typical. About 60% of all undergraduates are women. Somewhat more than 50% of PhD candidates are women. We see a drop to 45% among post docs; it’s down to 35% by the time we get to associate professors. And when we reach the highest level — the rank of full professor — only 20% of the staff is women.

As I’ve discussed in a recent blog posting and a recent paper, it is not credible to claim on the basis of these numbers that the situation will simply fix itself. If women leave academia in larger numbers than men, then it is entirely possible to have a majority of women at lower levels without necessarily getting more women at the top a few years later. It’s just as likely that we see a snowball effect by which younger women notice their supervisors’ generation leaving the academy, and then they do the same thing.

When we study why women leave academia, we can roughly say that there are two kinds of answers, and both of these are compatible with Bonde’s analysis of the culture of Norwegian political parties. One type of answer is that the working environment is so bad that one simply can’t be bothered. The competition is too ugly, the flailing too brutal. The other type of answer is that the job is incompatible with family life.

It’s important to find solutions to these challenges because organizations need more women in leadership. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, organizations with at least 30% women in leadership are perceived as having better work environments by their employees. Leadership styles that are more used by women are styles that make organizations better.

So we have to find measures that can change the status quo. One of the simplest is to prioritize improvement. Organizations with explicit goals about getting more women into leadership positions, actually experience a boost. We also know that mentoring programs pay off. Explicit encouragement to apply for advancement is effective. And programs which facilitate smooth transitions before and after maternity leave have an impact, too. There are many more measures that have been tried and tested.

The genSET project has recently submitted recommendations to the European Commission about increasing the number of women professors. They recommend more balanced approaches to promotion and they recommend concrete strategies for making visible the importance of mixed teams.

The political parties want those of us in academia to work on getting more women to the top. This requires leadership, and it’s a challenge we take very seriously at the University of Tromsø, where we are developing creative new tools to improve gender balance and thereby improve our organization and the work we do.

It will be exciting to see if any of Norway’s political parties would like to join us.

[Based on my article in Morgenbladet Hvis kvinner i ledelsen er viktig]


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